By Jonas Gerken
I think Americans take for granted the fact that all of their food share the same texture. Regardless of whether the food is whole or in pieces, cooked or raw, moist or dry, it all does the same thing in your mouth: it mushes. Now imagine eating a fruit with an identical appearance to a melon, and finding that after twenty seconds of vigorous chewing it has broken down into dozens of miniscule, dry pieces of fibre. This fruit–called chuchu–is native to Mexico and is included in everything from omelets to lasagne, despite it having no taste. The only reason brasilieros eat the fruit is because it contains minerals that benefit your immune system. Last Tuesday, chuchu found its way into my largest meal of the day: lunch.
During my first two weeks in Brazil, I found it almost impossible to avoid consuming foods that I had never encountered before; in most cases these foods didn’t have names in English. This is something I found more daunting than learning Portuguese. Brazilians’ concept of meals differs from that of Americans. In the United States, meals are worked into the schedule of the day, are evenly spaced apart, and used primarily for sustenance. Breakfast usually requires an early wake up or a quick snack on the commute to work. Lunch is fit into the mid-day break where the working schedule slows. Dinner occurs after all other events have finished and marks the end of the day.
In Brazil, the events of the day are scheduled around the meals, and therefore they are different for every family. In my family, breakfasts are small, usually consisting of some bread with ghee–a type of clarified butter–or some fresh fruits and juice. Breakfast is never missed in my household, despite its small size. Lunch is the principal meal of the day, taking precedent over all other commitments and activities. It is a pause, where my entire family can sit down, enjoy a large home-cooked meal, and discuss what has happened and what is to come. Some days, if we have guests or are not otherwise occupied, we will have a short meal devoted to coffee, cake, and some small activity. Dinner only occurs if everybody can eat together and is the only time where we eat outside of our house.
Eating large meals felt awkward, even after living with my family for most of a month. Rice and beans was the bedrock for every lunch, accompanied by a plethora of meats, legumes, and earthy greens. I filled my plate up to the brim with a single serving large enough to last me the entire day. Upon completion my stomach was more than content, but my family always insisted on seconds. I often found myself feeling bad, even guilty, for refusing food my family offered me. I was conflicted between appeasing my family and preserving my physical health.
This awkwardness stemmed from the fact that my previous conceptions of meals and sustenance did not apply in Florianopolis. Snacks are not snacks, meal schedules don’t exist, there is no unilateral price for name brand foods, and anything and everything can be used for cooking.
My culinary jaunts in Brazil are far from over, which scares me as much as it excites me. I just hope that, like my first bite of chuchu, they don’t turn into dozens of unenjoyable pieces.